Sunday, 16 June 2013

The odd things too much cake can make you do: a trip to Bettys, York

First up - apologies. I have been a bad, bad blogger. You might be mistaken for thinking that I came down with some kind of fatal food poisoning since my trip to Handmade Burger Co in April. Rest assured, I'm very much alive and well - obviously this here blog is proof that I'm not a modern day Blogger Jesus.  Instead, I've been busy wedding organising, celebrating (a lot), contemplating moving house, trying to get a bit fitter, and generally being a bit, well, busy.

But fear ye not, I'm back. And today I'll be talking about something exceptionally important and close to my heart - CAKE. And afternoon tea. Oh my. This is what dreams are made of.

Since we came back from Croatia, I've been attempting to be good on the food front. You know the drill - no naughty-ness, lots of salad, more vegetables than Mr McGregor's garden, counting Weight Watchers points until they come out of my ears and absolutely no cake. Boring boring boring. Of course, however, I made an exception for this bad boy - made by my brilliant friend Sophie in honour of our engagement and containing two of my most favourite things in the entire world - chocolate and Diet Coke. How could I say no to a slice of that?

Anyway, you get the picture. Over the past two months, the lbs have gradually started to drop off but I have been dreaming of cake. So you can imagine my excitement when two of the Mr's lovely friends from Uni bought us a voucher for champagne afternoon tea at Bettys (which mysteriously doesn't have an apostrophe - but don't let that put you off).

Bettys is somewhat of a Yorkshire institution. When I first decided to move to God's Own County for university my mother dearest could hardly contain her excitement of a) having a child-free house and b) having an excuse for regular trips to Bettys. Founded in 1919, the company now has six tea rooms across Yorkshire and a successful mail order company. Although the queues for their tea rooms often stretch round the corner and prices aren't exactly akin to buying a Tesco's bakery danish pastry, the amazing service, beautiful decoration that's reminiscent of a bygone era and the promise of exceptional cake make both the wait and the threat of a slimmed down bank balance worthwhile.

Keen to avoid the queues, I  managed to book a table for afternoon tea at the Belmont Room at the York branch. Away from the hustle and bustle of the main room and shop, the Belmont Room is a bookings only space that's above the main restaurant area. With a separate side entrance, it feels slightly department store-ish (I think maybe something to do with the darkness of the room due to a love of thick blinds) and it isn't quite as opulent as the main tearoom. However, when being faced with waiting in the rain in among a street load of Japanese tourists eager to get their mitts on some cake, the sacrifice was well worth it.

After being seated by a very friendly maître d, there was some confusion about the validity of our gift voucher for the Belmont Room that I wasn't made aware of when I secured the booking - apparently prices in the Belmont Room are slightly higher than they are in the main cafe tea rooms. However, it was quickly rectified after the maître d agreed that it was an error in communication on Bettys side, leaving us to enjoy our glass of champagne. 

After a peruse of Bettys substantial tea menu (containing no less than 18 different types of tea), the bubbles from the champagne made me divert from my normal (boring) choice of breakfast tea and instead opt for China Rose Petal which promised to keep my "mind, body and spirit in natural harmony." Very third age, but delicious none the less.

And then came the afternoon tea. Three amazing tiers of completely diet-unfriendly bliss which began with a selection of the most beautiful sandwiches - chicken and tarragon mayonnaise, smoked salmon, ham and mustard and egg and cress. The bread was oh-so-moist and fresh and the flavours complemented each other in a way that only the God of Afternoon Teas could create. In fact they were so good, we asked for more (forgive me Weight Watchers for I have sinned). 

Next came the scones. Ohhhh the scones. You know that thing when you cut into a scone and it's got a delicious crust on the outside and then it's beautifully soft and squidgy on the inside? Yeah? Well that in abundance. With cream and jam. Four little pieces of heaven.

And finally it was the turn of the cake. There was delicious macaroon, melt-in-the-mouth lemon meringue, coffee and ameretto sponge, victoria sponge to die for and a little slice of chocolately goodness. Oh my. I'll let the picture do the talking.

With that we finished our tea and rolled back down the stairs into the hustle and bustle of York, having spent two hours in Cake Utopia. Thanks Sarah and Jay.

The tea (along with the sugar high and added champagne) must have done something to my mind, body and spirit as promised as we then decided to go take a very romantic trip to a Go Outdoors store. More than two hours and a lot more than a few pennies later, we walked out clutching a tent, two rucksacks, two waterproof jackets, walking shoes, top of the range self-inflating sleeping mats (who even knew they existed) and a whole load of other stuff having taken the snap decision to walk from Saltburn to Filey this summer (and camp along the way). Maybe I need to lay off the cake if this sort of thing is the result. Lesson learnt.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Handmade Burger Co proves that burgers don't have to be boring

On Sunday night we arrived back in Leeds after a whirlwind of a holiday with a new relationship status, sunburned skin and a massive rucksack full of washing. To be frank, food shopping was the last thing on my mind, so you can probably imagine my relief when I checked my emails and was reminded that Handmade Burger Co had invited us to review their Leeds Trinity restaurant. We needed little encouragement to avoid Morrison's and our bulging washing basket, so off we popped on Tuesday night to sample some of the Leeds' newest foodie fayre and combat our post-holiday blues.

Handmade Burger Co are one of a number of chain restaurants that have sprung up in Leeds' brand spanking new shopping centre - they're joined by the likes of Carluccio's, Cafe Rouge, Giraffe, Nando's, Wagamamas and TGI Friday's.  Founded in Birmingham in 2007 by a trio of brothers, there are now sixteen Handmade Burger Co restaurants scattered around the country. They make and hand press their burgers on-site in their restaurants daily. Unlike some of their neighbours in the Trinity Centre, Handmade Burger Co really seem to value extremely fresh food, variety and service - not just in their mission statement but in practice too (and I'm really not just saying that).

The Leeds Trinity restaurant is fresh and modern, with a large open kitchen running against one of the back walls. With an ordering system not dissimilar to Nando's (you're shown to a table, choose what you want and then order at the counter), it could be easy to feel like you're just a number and service levels could reflect that. However, the service that Ash and I received was exemplary - beating the "service" we've been subjected to by their competitors hands down (not that you go to Gourmet Burger Kitchen expecting Michellin starred service, of course!).

With over forty different burgers on offer - ranging from a classic cheese and bacon burger right through to Moroccan lamb, brie and cranberry chicken, and stuffed cheddar and chilli - making a decision as to what to break my post-holiday diet with was more than just a little bit difficult. After a bit of hmming and haaing, we decided that as Homemade Burger Co first got in contact when I was battling with meat-free March it was only right that we check out their vegetarian options. And my goodness - if you're a veggie you could do far worse than choosing to eat here. With a plethora of options to choose from, it really is a breath of vegetarian fresh air. Our lovely waitress explained that all the vegetarian options are cooked separately (in vegetable oil) from the hundreds of meat-based food on offer, so no worries there either!

After some debate we settled for a Sweet Potato and Bean Burger (£7.25) and an Onion Bhaji Burger (£6.85), along with a portion of cajun seasoned fresh cut chips (£3.25) and a house salad (£4.95) to share. Both of the burgers arrived in a sourdough sesame seed bun, and were fit to burst with the most delicious garnish. The mango and ginger salsa that came with the sweet potato and bean offering was delectable, and the mint and red onion garnish with the bhaji burger was pretty darn tasty too. In fact - the burgers were so big and so tasty that they warranted knife and fork action! The Sweet Potato and Bean burger was sweet, but not overly so and the bhaji burger would make the best sort of hangover fodder. The portion of chips easily fed two and were perfectly fluffy and well-seasoned. All in all, top notch grub that beats rival Gourmet Burger Kitchen hands-down.

Although the Trinity Centre has been unbelievably busy and the queues for some of the restaurants have been quite literally out of the door, I think that a meal at the Handmade Burger Co is more than worth waiting for.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

A very Croatian engagement

Last time I blogged (which seems like many moons ago), I mentioned that I was off to Croatia to eat my weight in meat and seafood.

Well, eat my weight in meat and seafood I most definitely did. And pizza. And pasta. And risotto. All washed down with the biggest glasses of red wine you ever did see. We had the most lovely holiday.

We flew to Split, where we climbed the tower of Diocletian's Palace. I ate the most gorgeous seafood risotto, and we saw the sunrise from our apartment window, which was in the attic of a little house that was up a narrow, winding street.

Then we took the ferry to Korcula. We went on long walks, got lost a lot, explored the deserted Old Town, drank glasses of wine that cost 85p by the seafront and ate pizza that was bigger than our head.

Next it was off to Hvar, the most beautiful of islands. On the first day, we paddled in the sea, watched the yachts come in and out of the harbour and spent the afternoon in the town's little cafes, drinking cold beer.

On the second day, we walked up to the castle, hired bikes, cycled to a beach and walked along a rocky coastal footpath to a deserted cove. While we were sitting on the rocks, watching the clear blue sea sparkle in the sunshine, Ash asked me to marry him. 

I said a big fat yes.

Unbeknownst to me, he'd been carrying around a bag of Haribo rings all holiday, waiting for the right moment.

We celebrated by drinking Slovenian sparkling wine, getting very giddy, going to a beautiful restaurant in the harbour, eating delicious calamari, mussels and a seafood platter that was the most divine thing ever.

The next day we decided to leave our little (very budget) apartment behind and check into a hotel for our last night in honour of our newly engaged status. By some fluke of luck, the mid-range hotel we'd booked had closed - and instead we were told that there was a room for us for the same price in the most expensive, luxurious Spa hotel on the island that overlooked the harbour.

We spent the afternoon swimming in their salt water swimming pool, drinking appletinis in their roof-top bar until the sun went down, and generally grinning from ear to ear.

Words can't paint a picture of how happy I am, so maybe this photo will do the talking for me. x

Friday, 5 April 2013

Meat Free March Recipe Swap : The results are in!

I've celebrated the start of British Summer Time by eating a hell of a lot of meat. From pork and black pudding sausages to bacon, ham and tuna steak, I've enjoyed every mouthful after a month of beans and lentils. Ham hock, chorizo, sea bass, mussels, pork belly and lardons have had a look in too. My body has become a living, breathing temple to meat and fish. So much so, the chances of fitting into any of my summer clothes in time for my holiday to Croatia are now slim to none. Especially as I go on holiday tomorrow. Whoops.
However, when I return, there'll be plenty of deliciously healthy veggie and vegan recipes to tuck in to and help me on my way to losing the holiday bulge. These come courtesy of the lovely folk who participated in our Meat Free March recipe swap. 

So, who cooked what?
As I'm sure you'll agree, all of these blog posts make their swapees recipes look and sound tastier than an all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet at Hansa's. Trying to pick a blog to win our wonderful prizes was harder than finding a grain of couscous in a haystack. That's why, when Fay and I held our X Factor style judging panel  over Google chat last night, we decided to give not one, but two brilliant bloggers a prize (controversial - I expect there'll be Daily Mail headlines about this tomorrow!).

First up, Susie from Susie's Tummy Tales will be receiving a month's supply of fresh veg boxes from the brilliant Abel and Cole. Fay and I loved the humour in Susie's post and the fact that she was the only participant to give a vegan dessert a stab (thanks to Sharon's recipe). Top marks go to her especially because she served them in homous pots (we encourage recycling). Fay and I also decided that Susie is a worthy winner because she linked to Gregg Wallace's buttery biscuit base. I am a not-so-secret fan girl of Greg Wallace (it's something about the glasses, the love of desserts, and the way he whacks a spoon in his gob). As a greengrocer, I feel Gregg would approve of Susie winning a month's supply of vegetable goodies. 

Secondly, Sharon at Virtually Vegan wins a (veggie friendly) meal at Handmade Burger Co in honour of her effort. The Meat Free March recipe post marked Sharon's first ever foray into vegan blogging, and we think she's off to a pretty bloomin' great start. We hope the winning meal will encourage her to keep at it - maybe a restaurant review could be next? 

So, there we have it, meat-free Marchers. Susie and Sharon - please drop me a line with your address to and your prizes will be winging their way over to you sooner than you can shout "lots of lovely lentils please". To the rest of you - a big, big thank you for participating, for keeping Fay and I sane in our quest for the perfect veggie recipe and for giving me the opportunity to spend hours reading and looking at lots of lovely sausage-free food porn. 

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Meat Free March Recipe Swap: Amy's Penne alla Vodka

We're just a few hours away from 12am on the 1st of April 2013 - when meat is officially back on the menu again. In case you hadn't noticed, there's been a distinct lack of sausage in my life this month. There's been no bacon, no breast fillets, no little prawnies peeking out from beneath a bed of delicious paella. Have I missed meat? Good God yes. But, I'll let you in on a little secret - it hasn't been all bad. To tell you the truth, I've actually quite enjoyed it. I've loved discovering a ton of recipes, eating out in all sorts of weird and wonderful places and picking dishes from a menu that I'd never normally touch with a barge pole, only to discover that they're actually quite delicious. 

Best of all, I've loved meeting new people and discovering a  ton of amazing blogs via the Meat Free March recipe swap that Fay from Food Fables and I organised. Joined by a whole host of brilliant people, this swap has seen veggie and vegan recipes fly back and forth from different ends of the country. From coconut and lime vegan cheesecake to pumpkin and chickpea salad with tahini and flatbreads, to Dirty John Quinoa and cornbread with a blackbean and jalapeno sauce, I've loved reading the Meat Free March recipe swap blogs (and there are more to come - watch this space!). They've provided me with a lovely lot of inspiration to see me through my final meat free days.

I had the pleasure of sending Amy a couple of my favourite mid-week veggie recipes - Feta and Spinach Pie (which was actually first cooked for me by Hannah over at Girl Eats Vegan - hi Hannah!) and a flavoursome Thai Curry which is one of Ash's favourites and a firm staple in our household.

In return, I was tres excited when a package from Amy turned up which contained two of my most favourite things - vodka and mini eggs. Although I would have been quite happy to consume both of these gifts in one sitting without any accompanying foodstuffs, Amy had also popped in a recipe for Penne Alla Vodka - a go to dish in her house for when she "doesn't want to be in the kitchen for too long but wants  something carbey,  cheesy and delicious!"

So, here's Amy's Penne alla Vodka, a recipe she's created herself having taken inspiration from both Nigella and a Smitten Kitchen:

Penne alla Vodka (serves two)
200g penne (we didn't have any in so made some fresh tagliatelle!)
salt and pepper
can of chopped tomatoes
squeeze of tomato paste
one white onion (diced)
one or two cloves of garlic (crushed/grated)
100ml double cream
2 big glugs of vodka
a few fresh leaves of basil to taste
lots of parmesan (or veggie alternative)
a handful of frozen peas (optional)

Fry the chopped onions in a little oil.

Once the onion has softened, add the garlic and fry for another two minutes.

Pour in the first glug of vodka, followed by the can of tomatoes, squeeze of tomato paste and a generous helping of cracked black pepper. For a smoother sauce, you can add a pinch of sugar too.

Leave to bubble whilst you cook the penne in a pan of salted water (or, in our case, get that tagliatelle rolled and then popped in a pan for a couple of minutes!)

Just before the pasta is done, add a handful of frozen peas to the sauce.

Leave to bubble for a minute, then add the cream to the sauce, take off the heat and stir through.

Drain the pasta and return to the pan with the other glug of vodka and a big knob of butter.

When the vodka has burnt off a bit of the alcohol, stir in the sauce.

Serve with basil torn up and a heap of parmesan. Best consumed with a crispy green salad and a big glass of vino.

You might have noticed a distinct lack of mini eggs in the recipe. Apparently the Smitten Kitchen serves brownies as a dessert to this dish, which is why Amy included them, but I'm ashamed to say I'd scoffed them all before the onions had even got anywhere near a chopping board.  Whooops!

Although not a recipe for someone on a diet, this was a mid-week dish that was completely delicious and felt extremely decadent. To be honest, I was a bit wary that the vodka was going to be slightly over powering and I found myself adding little tipples rather than big glugs, but, if anything, I would get back to my Essex girl roots and not hold back next time. Amy suggested that adding prawns into the mix at the same time as the peas goes down a real treat too - and it's definitely an addition I'll be trying soon!

A big thanks to Amy for her lovely recipe and to all the other Meat Free March recipe swappers for helping a sister out. Fay and I are forming a panel (I'm the Louis Walsh to her Simon Cowell) to decide which swapper will receive a prize of a month's supply of Abel and Cole boxes and a meal at the wonderful (and veggie friendly) Handmade Burger Co - and all I can say is that if the recipes and blog posts are of a standard similar to the ones I've seen so far, it's going to be a hard choice to make!

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

How an Abel & Cole veg box saved Meat Free March

When I decided to spend March meat-free, I knew that I wasn't going to be able to get my foodie kicks from a month of jacket potatoes, Linda McCartney sausages and lentils. But, whilst I love experimenting with different recipes, the veg aisle in the supermarket doesn't usually get much of a look in when meat's on the menu - I tend to stick to what I know (mainly tons of cucumber, potatoes, salad, sweet potato and the odd butternut squash).  More to the point, prior to my month of vegetarianism my knowledge of when different fruit and veg is in season was pretty abysmal. I didn't know my spring greens from my autumn roots.

So I thanked the lord of lettuce and leeks when Abel & Cole got in touch and offered to send me a large vegetable box to encourage me on my path of meat free March. For those of you who haven't heard of Abel & Cole, they are the door-to-door angels of organic, seasonal fruit and veg boxes (and they also offer a ton of other brilliant produce too). For as little as £10 a week, their lovely local drivers will deliver a box full of the freshest, most in-season organic veg (or fruit, or fruit and veg), along with a whole host of beautiful recipes that are published weekly and occasionally the odd freebie too. They also deliver meat and fish (obviously not to me this month!), gorgeous looking ready-meals, loaves of bread and store cupboard staples like those all-important bars of chocolate. Although some of the produce is a little on the pricey side, I personally think their fruit and veg boxes are brilliant value for money and the service is wonderfully convenient - especially if, like me,  you don't have a car.

So, you can imagine my excitement last Friday when I arrived at work to be greeted by a lovely box by my desk that was full to the brim with exciting veg for me to try. One of the drawbacks of living in a flat in the city centre without a concierge service is that Abel & Cole weren't able to deliver to my home as there isn't easy access into the building or a safe place to leave the box (and the drivers deliver from 3am in the morning!). However, they were more than happy to deliver to my office and the lovely, sustainable packaging and accompanying recipe book got lots of my colleagues talking excitedly.

From avacado to beetroot, chinese leaf to watercress, green pointed cabbage to green batavia lettuce, all of the veg in my box was beautifully fresh and I was eager to get home and plan my week's meals around it. Although not everything was to my taste (celery sends me out in a cold rash), the beauty of Abel & Cole's model is that if you don't like something, you can ask for it not to be delivered again. Although you can't specifically specify what you'd like to receive, part of the joy is in the surprise.

I think that's the key to Abel & Cole - by delivering a real mixture of amazing produce, most of which is a surprise, it makes you want to use it and to try new things. Normally Ash and I start from scratch each week when it comes to shopping - we plan our meals around various recipes, not around what we have in the cupboard. Sometimes there'll be an evening when we don't have anything planned, so we end up buying a takeaway, going out or putting a cheeky pizza in the oven which can soon rack up cost-wise. But by having a stash of veg in the cupboards, there's never a reason not to make something fresh and super tasty. We did a tiny shop to compliment the veg - spending just £19 on a week's groceries.

Brocolli, Feta and Walnut soup from the Veg Box Companion book

Since the veg box arrived last week, we've already eaten a ton of fresh greens - not just boring stuff like cabbage and lettuce, but exciting stuff too. And if we're stumped for ideas, the wonderful Veg Box Companion book that came with the box offers a whole host of delicious looking recipes and ideas for perfect seasonal veg combinations.

This week has already seen the kitchen come alive with a truly tasty broccoli,  feta and walnut soup and a colcannon littered with spring greens, carrots, lemon and Parmesan. Still to come on the menu there's haloumi kebabs with lemon and thyme baste, Chinese leaf parcels and a delicious veggie chilli with homemade guacamole. I could get used to eating like this every week.

So, a massive thanks to the veg box guardian angels for helping me to keep the meat free March faith, for encouraging me to try new things and for keeping a fridge in veggie heaven. The lovely folk at Abel & Cole have also offered the winner of our Meat Free March recipe swap a month's supply of veg boxes, so I look forward to reading what tasty, seasonal spring time (err, if you can call it that with all this snow) treats the winner concocts with their supply!

Sunday, 24 March 2013

A how to guide to vegetarian dinner parties

I'll be completely honest -  whenever we've had a dinner party in the past my heart has always sunk a little bit when I've realised that we've got a vegetarian guest making their merry way to ours to quaff our wine and avoid our meat. It's not that I don't love my veggie friends - I do - it's just a bit of a faff to cater separately for an animal loving mate.

However, if meat free March has taught me anything, it's that there's a lot of really exciting vegetarian cookbooks and ideas out there - and catering for a veggie at a dinner party needn't be tricky. From Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall to Kaushy Patel, Yotam Ottolenghi to Nobu Matushisha, there are a lot of brilliant chefs doing great things with vegetables right now. In fact, some of the veggie food I've cooked this month has been so delicious I'd happily serve it to my sausage loving friends, and to be honest I doubt they'd even notice that the meat was missing. 

Last weekend Ash's parents came to stay. To finish the weekend off in a memorable way, Ash and I decided to go all out and cook a feast set to wow. As three out of four of us eating were veggie, we went the whole meat-free hog and drew up a completely vegetarian menu. A main course of fresh raviolli stuffed with roasted butternut squash and walnuts, homemade garlic bread and salad, followed by creme brulees (hello blowtorch!) and a cheese board went down an absolute treat - and I think it's fair to say that meat wasn't missed by anyone.

So, what are my top five tips for holding a vegetarian dinner party or catering for a vegetarian guest?

1. Just cause it's veggie, there's no reason to be too heavy on the carbs 

We recently went to a tasting evening at a local restaurant where every vegetarian dish - although delicious - was accompanied with a heavy load of carbs. Potatoes, bread, chips, pasta - sometimes more than one of the above per course, all taking the place of something meaty. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm a massive lover of carby accompaniments - but you need to think about your guest's stomachs. Bloatedness does not a happy dinner party go-er make.

2. Think of the veggies first, and pick a recipe with a meaty alternative

There's lots of gorgeous veggie dishes that can easily be tweaked to make a meaty alternative if you're catering for both herbivores and omnivores. For instance, the barley, tomato and garlic risotto that I blogged about the other day could easily welcome some last-minute fried chorizo for your sausage loving guests. If you're thinking of going down the fresh pasta route, ravioli is perfect for both meat lovers and rabbit foodies alike - simply whip up two different fillings and cook separately.  It's a lot easier to think veggie first and then adapt to meet the needs of your meat eaters than it is to do it the other way round!

3. Timings, timings, timings. 

If you're going all out veggie, it's still important to think about your timings. OK, so you might not have a massive hunk of beef to get just right, but there's not much worse than an overcooked carrot. If I'm cooking something complicated or a meal that's spread over a number of courses, I always sit down with a piece of paper beforehand and work backwards with the recipes from the time that I'm intending to serve. If there's an element of the dish that can be made in advance, crack on and do it. It's not rocket science!

4. Leaf? With everything? Be inventive!

If I had a tenner for the amount of veggie dishes I've had at restaurants etc this month that have been hidden under a pile of leaf, I'd be a very rich lady. Just because a vegetarian isn't a fan of meat, it doesn't mean they want to hang out in a lettuce patch all day either. If you want to serve salad as part of your menu or as a garnish that's fine, but be inventive with it! Think fresh beetroot, fruit, nuts. The world is a salady-oyster.

5. The proof is in the pudding

As long as you're catering for a veggie and not a vegan, thinking of a pudding to perfectly compliment your main course should be a doddle. Just remember to avoid gelatin and rennet and check your guest's attitude to eggs. The same goes for a cheese board or dishes that contain that hard cheeses such as Parmesan - it may be best to scour out a vegetarian alternative.

My attitude to cooking for my veg loving friends has changed considerably over the past few weeks, and my attitude to dinner party dining will never be the same. Have you had problems being creative with the veggie food you serve at dinner parties? Do you find veggie guests a difficulty or do you relish the challenge? And if you're a veggie, have you ever been made to feel unwelcome at a foodie gathering? I'd love to know your thoughts!

Hansa's - a jewel in Leeds' veggie crown

First up - an apology. I've been a bit slack with the whole blogging thing over the past ten days or so - it's been a particularly busy couple of weeks! I've spent my time entertaining parents x 2, celebrating my nephew's first birthday, dressing up as a Roman and frolicking round London for ITV2's new show Plebs, winning the Adelphi's pub quiz, cooking up a vegetarian storm in the kitchen, being busy at work and organising the lovely folk who are taking part in our Meat Free March recipe swap. I can't believe my month of meat abstination is almost over - and what a month it's been! Apologies for neglecting this little corner of the internet - a mega blog catch up is more than called for.

Last weekend Ash's parents Sue and Paul came to stay with us in Leeds for the first time ever.  We had a lovely time showing them the sights - from Leeds city centre to Ilkley, Briggate farmers' market to Saltaire. Sometimes having visitors to stay is the best excuse ever to do a lot of exploring, a lot of drinking and a lot of eating, which is exactly what we did. What's more,  showing someone else around the city that you call home is a reason to fall back in love with it all over again - it made me realise how lucky we are to live in such a thriving, diverse area.

Sue is a vegetarian so the weekend offered the opportunity to explore a bit more of Leeds' meat free foodie culture and share it with someone who really loves good vegetarian cooking. Ask any Loiner what restaurant they associate with some of the yummiest veggie food in the city, and Hansa's will always be the answer. The Gujarati restaurant was therefore firmly on our must-eat list for Saturday night. 

Established back in 1986, Hansa's is a Leeds institution that has won award after award for its sublimely tasty vegetarian food. A few years ago I was lucky enough to live a few seconds walk from North Street's lentil heaven, but to be honest it took me a good few months to pluck up the courage to eat there. Not because it has a scary shop-front, but rather because I associate Indian food with meat. Lots and lots of superbly marinated, uber tasty meat.  When a craving for curry came a'calling, the thought of a vegetarian Indian just didn't cut the mustard. However, when Hansa's ran a special birthday deal for two the offer was too great to pass up - and I thank my lucky daal we didn't. Hansa's has been on our list of favourite Leeds restaurants ever since.

We visited Hansa's with Sue and Paul on a busy Saturday night. Luckily we'd booked a table because the restaurant was very busy with diners getting their kicks from meat-free munching. We were greeted by Hansa herself and shown to our table on the second floor, which was a bit of a tight squeeze for four of us and a host of delicious food.

Being completely honest, we've experienced better service from Hansa's staff in the past. We noticed that other diners had been given snacks when they were seated which we weren't. There was also a wait of almost an hour for our starters to be served after our initial order. All in all, I couldn't help but feel that the restaurant was slightly understaffed for a busy Saturday night.

That being said, when our starters (finally) arrived any qualms we had about poor service were swiftly forgotten. Between us we tucked in to a deliciously sticky and beautifully spiced chilli paneer (which more than met Sue's spice test - the hotter the better!), Kachori (spicy coarsely ground peas and channa daal deep fried balls) and Khasta Kachori (sublime bread stuffed with spicy maag-daal, chickpeas and potatoes). The only dish that seemed to miss the starter mark slightly was Paul's choice - a Hansa's Kenyan Special (yam and sweetcorn with coconut sauce, onions and crunchy peanuts) - which we all felt would have been better placed as an accompaniment to the main than a starter. That aside, presentation of all four dishes was absolutely flawless and portion sizes were good.

For our main course, Ash and I decided to share Ful Cobi (delicious cauliflower florets, carrot,
potato and peas) and Hansa's Special (a four bean feast in a spiced sauce). The Hansa's Special had a real kick to it which was beautifully complimented by the sweetness of the carrots and peas in the Ful Cobi. Sue and Paul opted for Bhaji Paneer (spinach, paneer and peas) and Ringan na Raviya (kenyan aubergines, stuffed with spice masala, onions and coarsely ground peanuts) which were filling, flavourful, fragrant and perfectly accompanied by Paul's leftover Hansa's Kenyan Special.

Curry is synonymous with a plentiful array of delicious carbs, and Hansa's doesn't disappoint on this front. We went all out with both rice and bread - opting for Puri (grilled chapatti), Rotli (gorgeous deep-fried bread), cumin rice and coriander rice. The Rotli was the stand-out carby accompaniment - it wasn't overly oily, deliciously crisp and a brilliant sauce-catching tool. The rice was expensive for the portion size served - we opted for one portion between two and another one wouldn't have gone amiss.

Having said that, by the time dessert rolled around we were full to the brim so perhaps it was a good thing that our rice portions were slightly on the small side. I've had dessert at Hansa's before and despite giving it a miss this time round, I can safely say that they are as delicious and as unusual as the other courses.

Accompanied by a fine bottle of Rioja, some good chat and plenty of curry sharing, our meal at Hansa's was a delight despite the initially poor service. It was lovely to be able to share our choices - something that you can't often do as a vegetarian diner at a "normal" Indian restuarant and an element of social dining that I've really missed during meat free March. Hansa's just know what they're doing when it comes to texture, flavour and creating truly exciting food that doesn't empty your purse completely. I'll be rushing back soon - even when meat is firmly on my menu again.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Meat Free March - Recipe Swap

One of the things that's kept me going in my quest to eat meat free over the past twelve days has been other people's willingness and enthusiasm to suggest great vegetarian or vegan recipes. From suggestions of risotto to lasagna, curry to burritos, my experience of veggie food has been well and truly widened, my culinary creativity stretched and my willingness to try new things has increased ten fold.

But as we're almost half-way through Meat Free March now, a little extra inspiration wouldn't go amiss.

That's why Food Fables Fay and I have been busy organising a meat free recipe swap - in the hope that it'll stop us from resorting to a basic bean burger to curb our rumbling stomachs and keep our kitchen creativity intact. 

How will the Meat Free March recipe swap work? 

The idea is to gather together a group of people who love food, love writing about food and are either already eating meat free or are looking to expand their repertoire of veggie or vegan food. 

We'll team interested parties up with a fellow blogger by popping you over a quick survey of food don'ts and food loves. 

After that, you'll have a few weeks to scour recipe books, blogs and other foodie bibles, looking for the perfect recipe to send you veggie pal.  As I really love brown paper packages tied up with string, we thought it'd be nice if we sent each other vegan/veggie recipes by post, so that you can include one or two low-cost ingredients for the recipe if you so choose. 

As per the food bloggers code, we'd encourage you to tweak recipes taken from cookbooks or to provide your swapee with a link to the cookbook writer's site  if you are using the recipe with out alterations - they have to earn their bread and soya butter too!

We'd love nothing more than to see everyone's culinary attempts at their swap pal's recipe, so we'd really enjoy it if people wrote up their escapades in a blog post, and take lots of pictures too! 

We're also currently in talks with a few nice bods to be able to offer the best post a little something - watch this space for more info...

In addition to writing about your recipes it would be great to share hints and tips on Twitter, which you can do using the #MFMuk hashtag.

Some key dates

  •  Participation confirmation to be received by this Friday March 15th
  •  Recipes to be arrive with partner by Monday March 25th
  •  Blog posts to go up Sunday March 31st
  •  Matches sent out Sunday March 17th

How do I sign up?

Signing up is easy - just leave me a comment below with your email address or tweet @becs_edwards or @foodfablesuk or drop us an email at Simples!

Looking forward to meat free munching with you!

Twelve days of Meat Free March: a veggie recipe round-up

This month has flown by - I can't quite believe that I'm almost half way through my thirty one days of meat abstention. Apart from missing the sweet, sweet taste of freshly fried chorizo, the beautiful versatility of prawns - my favourite fishy friends - and the indescribable wonder of a Saturday morning bacon sandwich, I've actually not missed eating meat all that much at all. Despite my colleague Nathan sending me almost daily photos of thick-cut, beautifully cooked steak, I've found the draw of the meat aisle quite easy to resist.

The thing that's kept me going is the wealth of new, healthy, delicious recipes that I've discovered - both by chance and by recommendation. I thought I'd take the opportunity to pop together a quick rundown of a few of my favourite dishes that I've tried over the past twelve days. 

Ottolenghi's Barley, Tomato and Garlic Risotto

Recommended to me by the wonderful Gemma over at Florence Finds, this dish was a wonderful, filling mid-week treat - one that I know will join our list of favourites even when we go back to full-time omnivore fun.  To be honest, when I was cooking it I was completely unsure quite how it was going to turn out - it features quite a concoction of ingredients and a hell of a lot of garlic. So, maybe not a first date food, but if you like healthy comfort noms and want to ward off vampires, this one's for you. You just need to put your faith in Ottolenghi's genius and trust that the recipe will work. We adapted it slightly as we were low on fresh tomatoes so we used tins, and instead of buying pearl barley we used Bello's three grain blend - which is a mixture of risotto rice, spelt and barley. If you want to try Ottolenghi's original recipe, you can find it here.

Serves 4

Heat 3 tbsps of olive oil (or a few sprays of Fry-lite) over medium heat in a medium-sized saucepan and sauté 2 whole heads of garlic, cloves separated, peeled and quarted, for about two minutes, or until golden. Add two tins of chopped tomatoes, 1/2 tsp of paprika, 1/8 tsp dried chilli flakes, 1 tbsp thyme, 4 strips of lemon zest, 1 1/2 tsp caster sugar, 1 tsp salt, 270g of Bello's three grain blend (rinsed and drained) and a ladleful of water; stir and bring the mix to a simmer. Cook over minimal heat for 50-60 minutes, until the barley is tender but still firm to the bite. You’ll need to stir it from time to time, so it doesn’t stick to the pan, and add water occasionally, making sure there is always just enough liquid left in the pot to cook the barley. At the end of the cooking, the mix should be runny enough easily to spoon into bowls.
Once done, remove the pan from the heat, stir in 15g chopped coriander leaves and some freshly ground black pepper. Add 150g of feta, stir gently so the cheese doesn’t break up too much and stays in largish chunks, taste and adjust the seasoning accordingly.
Spoon into serving bowls, sprinkle with 50g of feta and 5g of coriander, and drizzle over a little olive oil.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Cauliflower and Chickpea Curry

Filling. Low calorie. Cheap. Fast.Vegan-friendly. Perhaps could do with a bit more in the way of spice, but did the trick just fine. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has slightly adapted his recipe from Angela Hartnett's, which can be found here, which in turn was inspired by food served at Prashad, a vegetarian restaurant in Bradford which is firmly on my list to try this month. Watch this space for a review!

Gnocchi and Tomato bake

Image courtesy of BBC Good Food - but mine looked like this too, I promise!

I can't put into words how much I adore BBC's Good Food. I own two of their hefty recipe books and they're our go-to food bibles for whenever the cupboards are bare and our imagination is lacking. Full of meals made made up of store cupboard favourites, and a large veggie section to boot, I've cooked a lot of their recipes and I've never discovered a bad one. This gnocchi and tomato bake was no exception - simple, super quick and very tasty - it hit spot on a day that cheese was being craved in abundance. 

So, there we go. Here's to another two and a bit weeks of vegtastic meals. Please help a sister out though - I'd love to know if there are any veggie meals that you'd particularly recommend to keep me going over the next nineteen days!

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Becs Bakes: Secret ingredient scones and maple and pecan cupcakes

Every so often, I have a massive urge to bake. The urge often comes on a Sunday afternoon when I can think of nothing I'd like to do more than get down my cake-y recipe books, leaf through the pages, find something that takes my fancy and spend a few hours getting the kitchen into a state where you can only just see the floor from all the flour that I've managed to sprinkle over it.

I find baking relaxing - a bit like cooking, concentrating hard on a recipe is a real release from thinking about other stuff. My Mum's a good baker (and also a bit of an experimenter too - her couscous cake is something that only Mrs Cropley from the Vicar of Dibley would be likely to dream up) so quite a lot of my childhood was spent making cakes and biscuits with her. My favourite bit was always sifting the flour and licking the bowl. I'm 25 now and not much has changed.

Anyway, this Sunday the baking urge hit me so I whiled away a few hours knee deep in buttercream icing and kneading dough.

First up I used ingredients that we already had in the cupboard to make scones. Quite often I find that homemade scones can be a bit disappointing - either they are too crumbly and dry, or they're flat as a pancake, or they rise well but leave a horrible baking soda aftertaste. A few years ago I discovered a recipe from BBC Good Food that has revolutionised my scone making activity. Just look at these bad-boys:

Delicious, moist, light and towering high. The secret? Use warm milk and a little dash of lemon juice. The lemon juice sours the milk slightly, which means it tastes a bit like buttermilk and gives a boost to the rising agents in the self-raising powder and baking powder. Sorted.

Want to know the recipe? You can find it here.

Whilst the scones were cooling I decided to try my hand at something a bit different. After visiting the Sunshine Bakery on Thursday all I could think about was cupcakes. We had maple syrup and pecans in the cupboard (left over from Mexicanna) and I wanted to combine them into something that'd beat the Sunshine Bakery's mango and banana cake for deliciousness.

After a bit of digging around, I pulled out The Primrose Bakery Book that Ash's mum kindly got me a few Christmases ago and found a recipe for maple and pecan cupcakes that looked delicious.

I adapted the recipe slightly as we were low on self-raising flour and I only had 160ml maple syrup. Instead of the maple syrup buttercream suggested, I topped with a light vanilla buttercream instead.

The Primrose Bakery's Maple and Pecan Cupcakes with Vanilla Buttercream 

For the cupcakes (makes 10 regular cupcakes or 8 muffin sized ones)

Preheat the oven to 180c/gas mark 4/fan oven 160c. Line a 12-hole muffin tray with 10 muffin cases. Using an electric mixer, cream 115g unsalted butter with 50g of soft brown sugar until pale and smooth. Add 160ml of maple syrup and beat well. Add two eggs, one at a time, mixing slowly after each addition. 

Using a spoon , fold 100g of self-raising flour and 15g of plain flour, along with a sprinkle of baking powder into the batter and beat well. Fold in 60g of roughly chopped pecan nuts.

Spoon the mixture evenly into the muffin cases, filling each case about two-thirds fill. Bake in the centre of the oven for 25 minutes, until risen and golden and they pass the clean skewer test. Leave the cupcakes to cool for 10 minutes in their tin, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

For the caramelised pecans

Whilst the cakes are cooling, gradually heat 60g of golden caster sugar in a heavy saucepan until the sugar has melted. Spread 20 pecan nut halves onto baking powder, then pour the melted sugar over the nuts, covering them completely. Wait for the caramel to cool and harden, then break into 20 pieces (half a pecan per piece).

Ice the cupcakes with the vanilla buttercream below and top with a caramelised pecan. 

For the vanilla buttercream icing

Using an electic hand mixer, beat 78g of butter with 45ml of milk, 175g of icing sugar and 3/4tsp of vanilla extract until smooth. Gradually add another 175g of icing sugar to produce a buttercream that's smooth and creamy.

The Primrose Bakery Book's recipes never fail to delight, and this one was no exception. In fact, I'd even go so far to say that they were the best cakes I'd made in a long while - Ash certainly seemed to think so after eating cake number three anyway. 

I took the scones and the maple and pecan cupcakes into work to treat my colleagues to a spot of afternoon tea on Monday - I can't think of a better way to start a week!